Who is a Medical Expert Witness and How to Become One?

Last updated Apr 7, 2021 | Published on Apr 5, 2021

A medical expert witness is a licensed practitioner with adequate skills and experience that qualifies them to provide testimony in a particular medical field. Attorneys often call medical expert witnesses to get reliable opinions about clinical issues in a case during the discovery and trial stages.

The prime responsibility of an expert witness is to give all the relevant information related to the case and give their honest and unbiased opinions. Their findings can help the attorneys to evaluate the merits of a case before the legal proceedings.

In medical-legal cases such as malpractice, clinical negligence, and personal injury, medical experts are summoned to testify on issues related to their field of expertise. Some of these issues are causes of injuries, standards of care, long-term effects of medical conditions, etc.

A high-quality medical expert helps by giving their independent opinions during each stage of the litigation and assists the court, committee, or tribunal in decision-making.

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Role Played By Medical Expert Witness

A medical expert witness analyzes the material facts related to the case, the claimant’s medical records, and witness testimonies; then prepares written statements, reports, makes models, and provides testimony to the court. The expert witness should help the court understand the medical terminologies, technicalities, and medical complexities concerning a case. In simple words, anyone without medical knowledge should understand the key aspects involving the case.

A medical expert witness helps the court with independent and objective opinions in a medical-legal claim rather than the party who engages them. Any comments, reports, or opinions given by a medical expert witness must be unbiased, credible, objective, and defensible.

How To Become A Medical Expert Witness?

Most medical-legal cases stand or fall based on the quality of evidence provided by an expert, and hence being an expert witness is crucial during the legal process. A physician with adequate knowledge, skills, and at least 10 to 15 years of experience in a specialty could work as a potential expert witness.

Many physicians also attend expert witness courses to specialize in report writing, legal process, and court appearances. An expert witness can illustrate based on the experience and advice of their colleagues and the instructions received from their attorneys.

Even though, in most cases, expert witnesses are not required to appear in front of the jury, an expert with an ability to communicate is always preferred by the attorneys. An expert witness must have a good command of verbal and written communication skills.

Generally, before being hired for a particular assignment, a physician may need to review the case and provide their honest opinion. The opinion would act as a base to decide whether the physician would continue through the case as an expert witness.

Depending on the law firm’s requirements, the physician will be hired and asked to submit a detailed review and written opinion on the case. In most cases, the physician would also be willing to testify if expected remuneration is offered.

Medical Expert Witness Requirements

A medical expert witness should provide an independent and defensible opinion on medical-legal issues in the court. It is important to understand the requirements for providing expert witness services, which can be categorized as:

  • Legal Requirements
  • Practical Requirements

Legal Requirements

The Federal Rules of Evidence 702 mandates an expert witness to have the necessary knowledge, education, skill, training, or experience to help the “trier of fact” understand the evidence presented or find out the facts in the issue. Most physicians can qualify to be expert witnesses based on the above standard since the legal requirements are minimal.

Two other legal requirements depend on the jurisdiction:

  1. Expert Witness’ Speciality:  Some states necessitate the physician who gives testimony as an expert witness to the same specialty as the defendant in medical-legal cases. For instance, if the defendant is a neurologist and the expert witness hired is a general surgeon, then the surgeon’s opinion will not gain leverage.
  1. Expert Witness’ License:  Physicians testifying as an expert witness should possess a license of that particular state in some states. If not, they will be subjected to medical malpractice liabilities.

Practical Requirements

Practical requirements to assist as an expert witness are extensive, and some of them include:

  • Areas of Expertise:  The area(s) of your expertise must be in demand and should be the ones that a litigator is searching for; else you won’t get hired.
  • Driven and Dedicated:  You should be willing to provide your full energy-driven service in this field. A competitive spirit and motivation, determination, and a will to excel are a few of the essential skills to possess.
  • Meeting Deadlines:  Judicial proceedings are deadline-driven, hence a strong commitment to meet and beat deadlines.
  • Clean Record:  There must be no criminal convictions, license revocations, controversies, or poor judgment.
  • Flexibility:  Depositions and trial appearances are an integral part of this job. A flexible schedule is ideal if you are asked to appear on short notice.
  • Time:  To deliver assignments on time, you may have to work nights and weekends. Hence, you may need to accommodate enough time to achieve this.
  • Ideal Employer:  As organizations have their own set of rules and regulations, you need to ensure that your employer permits you to work as an expert witness.
  • Thick Skinned:  Being an expert witness is not an easy task. It would help if you handled the opposing party since they will leave no stone unturned in challenging your credentials, qualifications, honesty, work, etc.
  • Communication Skills:  Should have good written and verbal communication skills.
  • CV:  Review your qualifications by the retaining counsel.
  • Website:  You can consider having an online page to help achieve the following:
  • Appraise your qualifications without having to get in touch with you.
  • Further assist in getting you recognized and identified.
  • Display your skills and pertinent information by highlighting your main achievements and your expertise.
  • Provide background information links to your publications, medication association sites, or medical practice’s website.
  • Contract:  It’s better to have a contract in place along with a fee schedule. Again, a website can come in handy here to provide a general overview of pertinent information.
  • Other Skills:  Possession of organizational, investigative, and research skills can be an added advantage.

How Much Do Medical Expert Witnesses Get Paid?

The remuneration package for a medical expert witness is significantly more than that of a non-medical expert witness. There are multiple factors involved while considering the remuneration of an expert witness.

An impeccable track record of success and leadership in the field is one of the most important elements. The publications under the witness’ belt and teaching experiences are also factored in. Some expert witnesses are also selected based on word of mouth. Since the outcome of a medical-legal case depends on the expert witness testimony, they are chosen with great care after considering the expert’s extensive knowledge and professional ethics.

Firms that specialize in medical malpractice claims have a list of the expert witnesses they previously worked with and retain them for any other expertise-related litigation.

Depending on the skills and experience, experts can decide the charges for their services. According to the recent surveys, anywhere from $400 to $600 can be the general cost per hour.

Below are a few detailed facts and information inferred from the surveys:

  • The average initial payment for an expert witness is $2000, and about 74% of them need an upfront payment.
  • The average hourly rate for non-medical expert witnesses is $245 and for medical expert witnesses $350. It includes the fee for file review and presentation.
  • The average hourly fee for testimony is $500/hour for medical expert witnesses and $275/hour for non-medical expert witnesses.
  • Typically expert witnesses testifying for defendants demand higher fees as compared to experts testifying for accusers.
  • Medical expert witnesses testifying for accusers usually require an up-front payment from the law firm.
  • Around 47% of expert witnesses want their agreement signed before starting on a case, and 53% have a cancellation policy in place. A portion or whole fee for trial appearance, etc., is retained if the cancellation is made within the purported time before the scheduled date.
  • 33% of expert witnesses charge a minimum hourly rate for written testimony, and 31% of experts charge a minimum hourly rate for trial testimony.

Summary

There are several things to learn and keep in mind for all medical expert witnesses before offering these services. They need to recognize their duty towards the court and towards the prevailing administration of justice. Providing independent and unbiased opinions based on their qualifications, keeping up-to-date with their specialty area, taking corrective action in case of change of opinion are a few of their prime duties.

That being said, a medical expert witness job is not for the fainthearted and should be considered after weighing all the pros and cons involved.

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